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Ice Cream Factory fire

Text by Nanama Keita/Twenty Ten and photos by Ahmed Jallanzo

Associated features: Ice Cream factory (Photo feature created 10 days before the building burnt down) and Incendie à l'usine Chico’s Ice Cream d’Alexandra (French text)

Location: Alexandra Township, Johannesburg

As the world football’s governing body, FIFA, basks in the glow of record earnings of some US$3.2 billion from the South African 2010 World Cup, anger mounts among impoverished South Africans over their government’s failure to provide basic amenities.

During its annual congress in Johannesburg that preceded the grand opening of the finals, FIFA revealed that its annual income was up 50 per cent since the last World Cup four years ago. Ms Bell Modisakeny, one of the people who narrowly escaped death when an overnight fire gutted a derelict ice cream factory that had been her home since 1992, has blasted the government for misplaced priorities.

“The government has neglected us. They have millions to spend on building stadiums around the country for the World Cup, yet they can’t get us a reasonable and habitable house to sleep in,” she sobbed.

The former Chico’s Ice Cream factory on the outskirts of Alexandra Township, Johannesburg, illegally housed more than 400 people. They had erected cardboard partitions and formed a second floor from wood to create a highly flammable ‘shantytown’. People cooked on paraffin stoves, and used candles or illegal electrical connections for light.

As hundreds of people pondered their fate in the harsh Johannesburg winter, others were busy looting the scrap metal of the structure. Nearly half of South Africa’s population live on less than US$3 a day, and staging the prestigious World Cup has cost the state a staggering US$13 billion.

Many analysts think that the burden of debt will cripple the country, and endanger state funding that keeps many of the poor from starvation.

Tshiolidzi Thiswana, a mother of two, who watched her belongings go up in flames after narrowly escaping the wild fire with her two-year-old son, daughter and sister, has spoken of her distress.

The 33-year-old, who is battling to come to terms with Friday’s fire outbreak, recounted how the smoke woke her and her family up at 3:30am. The fire ripped through the house and before the intervention of the fire services, the estimated 400-bed building was gutted beyond recognition.

“We managed to escape with slight injuries, but our belongings were all ruined,” Thiswana bemoaned. “I only have two children and my sister, and now I have no place to live. Since the morning I have been sitting here helpless and I know I am going to spend the night here as well.”

Thiswana does not know how the fire started, but she doesn’t reject foul play.

“I don’t know how the fire started, but I suspected it was caused by someone who just wanted to frustrate us out of this place,”

Mr Percy Morokane, the media liaison officer of the Emergency Management Services, who visited the place shortly after the inferno, revealed that the victims were occupying an illegal building that was not suitable for habitation. Ms Modisakeny, who serves in the Marlboro Community Executive Committee, spoke from a different perspective.

“We are legal occupants of this place. We do pay rent to our respective landlords each month,” said Modisakeny, who pays R540 monthly for the single-bedroom cardboard room she and her little sister had been occupying at the flat.

For Happy Xintlhavani, a 28-year-old who survives by working as a street vendor, the people of the deprived community are just victims of heartless politicians.

“They had always fooled us of better amenities during pre-election campaigns, only for them to relent on their endless promises after being elected into office,” he said.

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